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Legal Aid Center for Low-Income Clients Closes : Santa Monica: Westside Legal Services handled 3,200 cases in the past year. City officials are seeking a replacement agency.


Nearly a year ago, when Claire Stone could no longer tolerate the slum-like conditions of her Santa Monica rooming house, she sought help from Westside Legal Services.

With help from the free legal aid program--the 62-year-old woman could not afford to pay attorneys' fees--Stone sued the landlord and prevailed in court.

The improvements, however, still were not made. So the battles continued, with Stone quickly becoming one of Westside's regular customers. But last week, Westside shut its doors. And, for now, Stone and about 3,200 other low-income Santa Monica residents are left in the lurch.

"We need to get another agency in Santa Monica; we need it desperately," Stone said. "There are a lot of elderly people in Santa Monica, and we're not all living on trust funds."

For nearly 15 years, Westside ran a one-stop legal center primarily for Santa Monica residents, most of them destitute.

The agency itself ran out of money when the Internal Revenue Service notified Westside earlier this year that it owed nearly $100,000 in unpaid payroll taxes. The agency closed last week after it was unable to come up with a reduced payment of $25,000, said former director Barbara Greenstein.

The agency paid taxes quarterly, and for three quarters it came up short, she said. The agency is still trying to make the payment.

Last year, Santa Monica funded roughly $226,000 of Westside Legal Service's total budget of $380,000. The agency also received financial aid from the state Bar Assn., grants from private foundations and money from fund-raising efforts.

Of the more than 3,200 cases it handled in the past year, about 1,000 involved domestic violence. Lawyers helped battered women obtain restraining orders and, in some cases, represented clients in court.

The agency also helped Santa Monica residents obtain public benefits, resolve immigration problems, fight consumer fraud and defend themselves against unlawful evictions and other disputes with landlords.

Last week, the city began a search for an agency to replace Westside Legal Services. It could take at least three months to find a new service, according to the city's Human Services Department.

There is a dearth of free legal services in Santa Monica. Westside is referring clients to two other legal aid organizations--Bet Tzedek, which has its closest office on Fairfax Avenue, and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, located Downtown. The agencies have indicated that they will submit a proposal to provide legal services in Santa Monica on a permanent basis.

But the trip to Bet Tzedek and the Legal Aid Foundation may be too difficult for most of Westside's former clients, many of whom do not have cars.

"Sure people can trek down to the (Legal Aid Foundation) or over to Bet Tzedek for now, but it's prohibitive. The longer the distance, the more reluctant people are to go there," said Tony Trendacosta, general counsel for the Santa Monica Rent Control Board, which referred more than 40 people a week to Westside for advice on evictions.

For clients who need help with domestic violence cases, the outlook is somewhat brighter. City officials are working on a contract with Ocean Park Community Center in Santa Monica to run Westside's domestic violence program on a limited and temporary basis.

The details are not final, so there may be a gap between Westside's departure and Ocean Park's coverage, but Rusk said chances are good that some form of legal aid for domestic violence cases will continue.

In addition, the legal aid agency that permanently replaces Westside will have more funding this year to aid victims of domestic violence. In June, the Santa Monica City Council approved $50,000 earmarked for such programs.

But the transition from Westside to a new legal aid provider may not be seamless, Greenstein warned. None of the other legal aid programs in the county provide much attorney representation in court for victims of domestic violence, she said.

And when it comes to renters' rights, the differences are even more pronounced.

"Santa Monica offers its clients different defenses than other cities because of rent control," she said. "They're not used to it in Los Angeles, although it's not impossible for them to get up to speed."

For Stone, any legal aid program would be better than none, as long as it is closer to home. Now that Westside is gone, she must take a bus from Santa Monica to Bet Tzedek, where her case has been referred.

Traveling is a problem. She has arthritis and respiratory problems, and she is still recovering from stab wounds after an attack in Venice last year.

But what concerns her most is the fear that her case will not be a priority for the attorneys at Bet Tzedek.

"I'm sure they're swamped, so taking on my case will be difficult," Stone said. "But I really don't have any alternatives right now."

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